PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... promises to attract many other readers for whom a trip down the Mississippi seems a romantic idyll ... Readers of The Oregon Trail, Mr. Buck’s 2015 account of his ramble across the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon, will be familiar with his mix of popular history, wry reportage and quixotic contraptions. That book evoked the great procession of wagon trains that endure in the national imagination as America’s defining pioneer experience. But Life on the Mississippi advances a compelling argument: \'The inland rivers—not the wagon ruts crossing from Missouri to Oregon—were America’s first western frontier\' ... Mr. Buck’s acerbic takedowns of those with whom he quarrels can give pause, especially since the objects of his ire lack the forum of a bestselling author to respond in kind ... To his credit, Mr. Buck points some of his sharpest barbs inward ... People along the river offer Mr. Buck and his boatmates meals, guidance and goodwill, and such stories make Life on the Mississippi an antidote to the cynicism of the times ... sparkles with Mr. Buck’s own felicities...His prose, like the river itself, has turns that quicken the pulse ... Not many of us would attempt Mr. Buck’s life on the Mississippi. At its best, though, his book makes us feel that if the invitation came, we’d climb aboard.
Cees Nooteboom, tr. Laura Watkinson
RaveThe Wall Street JournalDespite its author’s depth of years, 533 Days doesn’t style itself as a repository of seasoned wisdom. Mr. Nooteboom’s real subject is the one that’s defined his career—mainly, the persistent strangeness of existence and its refusal to be fully resolved by religion, philosophy or science ... Mr. Nooteboom tempers his world-weariness with a youthful curiosity. His journal, which extends beyond his cactus garden to record encounters with owls and geckos, donkeys and spiders, moths and tortoises, can seem like a medieval bestiary, a nature chronicle with the vividness of a dream ... Spotting Cassiopeia in the night sky, Mr. Nooteboom notes that \'I am spinning along with her at a speed I can never feel.\' Even in repose, it seems, Cees Nooteboom is destined to be a traveler to the end.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe reader cannot help noticing that Mr. Damrosch’s intellectual odyssey doesn’t feature stops in Germany or Russia, two countries with many great writers...Regardless of its ostensible departures and arrivals, Around the World in 80 Books is a narrative in which lines on the map tend to blur ... it’s a shame that a book so rooted in intellectual history doesn’t have an index ... There’s pleasure aplenty in Around the World in 80 Books, which includes lively essays on popular entertainments ... Mr. Damrosch offers succinct assessments of treasured titles in his library and tempts us to make them our own. Like a tour guide pointing travelers beyond the bus window, he nudges readers to notice parts of the global literary landscape they might have missed ... In a book that takes its narrative scheme from Verne’s whimsical story, readers might not be fully prepared for such gravitas. Mr. Damrosch’s itinerary...involves emotional shifts that can create the literary equivalent of jet lag ... But while Mr. Damrosch arranges his essays to simulate a trip, they can be sampled in any order, easily accommodating a reader’s mood. The eclectic range of his material evokes the cultural oscillations of last year’s lockdowns, when many of us couldn’t quite decide if we wanted to divert our minds or deepen them...All of which invites the question: Will Mr. Damrosch’s book, written in the shadow of a global health emergency, be remembered primarily as a curious artifact of that strange season in the life of the world?
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorRenkl is a lovely writer, and to read her work is to be reminded that as a younger woman, she once aspired to be a poet. In one sense, she’s realized that dream; her lyrical sentences sing from the page ... Passages like that one underscore Renkl’s sublime style. But it’s no discredit to her to consider the fact that without her regional roots, Renkl might not have been chosen to write a regular column for the Times. Her role, both a privilege and an abiding complication, is apparently to be a Great Explainer of All Things Southern to the rest of the country ... This wounded condition, a legacy of the South’s fraught history, seems an analog of sorts for America’s current national mood. In the wake of a pandemic and racial and political strife, the broader culture also seems ill at ease. It’s why Renkl’s essays, though written by a child of the South, resonate with particular urgency ... Renkl’s columns deserve to be read again, and for years to come.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalCatherine Raven’s story about her relationship with a wild red fox, is likely to find a receptive audience. But readers might also ask, given the well-trodden ground on this topic, whether there’s much new to say ... Like Ms. Macdonald and Mr. Hamer, Ms. Raven had turned to nature as a salve for psychic wounds ... A self-described \'pathologically private\' person, Ms. Raven is sometimes reticent to a fault ... A passing mention of a news event places Fox’s arrival in 2005, but Ms. Raven’s memoir avoids specific dates.The effect of such omissions is to render a narrative that sometimes seems fabulistic and outside time, which is perhaps what Ms. Raven intends ... Fox and I explores whether true friendship is possible between people and creatures of the wild. Ms. Raven seems to recognize that the concept will strike many readers as strange, but she appears drawn to such things precisely because they can’t easily be quantified ... mysterious and magical.
PositiveWall Street Journal... chronicles the final year he spent as the sole hired gardener on a country estate before trading his pruners for a laptop to focus on his writing ... What Mr. Hamer suggests, without quite spelling it out, is that while life is short, it can seem longer if we pay attention ... It sounds like a diminishing comparison, though in Mr. Hamer’s prose, seeing is itself an act of imagination. As the world emerges from lockdown and more of us resume our distracted lives, his quality of perception is an ideal worth remembering ... an invitation to read this world as Mr. Hamer does—with a close eye to what changes, and what does not.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn the midstof a global pandemic and social unrest, cities suddenly seem out of fashion. Stories abound of urban dwellers chucking it all and heading to the country, seeking a safer remove from contagions and other complications of crowded society. That’s why Martha Teichner’s When Harry Met Minnie is such a breath of fresh air. Short and sweet, it’s ostensibly a memoir about an oddball canine romance. Its deeper subject, though, is the romance of cities, particularly New York, where the author has lived for decades ... Does one have to be a dog lover to appreciate When Harry Met Minnie? It might help, but Ms. Teichner’s book is also—perhaps even largely—about other things. It’s a valentine to New York and a meditation on human friendship. Without a traditional family, Fertig, ever the resourceful designer, fashions one from her Gotham social circle, and these tender souls faithfully nurse her in her final days. As the world slowly emerges from the imposed isolations of Covid-19, When Harry Met Minnie is a timely refresher course in the power of community.
Kathleen Dean Moore
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... necessarily a serious book, but its moral insights are occasionally leavened with humor. Ms. Moore is a fervent nature lover, sometimes comically so ... An abiding insight of Earth’s Wild Music is that to save the world, we must truly see and hear it. \'How can we be fully alive,\' she asks, \'if we don’t pause to notice, and to celebrate, all the dimensions of our being, its length and its depth and its movement through time?\' ... Ms. Moore sees and hears much, and she writes about it beautifully. Even without Carson’s noble precedent, one gathers that Ms. Moore probably would have framed the planet’s ecological diversity as a feast for the ear. She professes a lifelong love of music—a passion that informs her appropriately lyrical prose ... Though much of the material is new, the scheme enables Ms. Moore to repurpose selections from previous books. Those reprises are welcome, since not all readers will be familiar with Ms. Moore’s earlier outings.
Robert Michael Pyle
RaveThe Wall Street JournalAt their best, Mr. Pyle’s essays are an invitation to surprise ... Many of the essays strike a valedictory note, passing advice and obligations from one generation to the next ... The finest of these essays eloquently advance that ideal, revealing a writer who has, in many ways over a long career, fulfilled it.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorIt’s a tonic for these pandemic times, reminding us of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry as a \'momentary stay against confusion.\' Kingsolver’s poems are like that, though their clarity is less a matter of sudden revelation than the slowly ripening insight of age. The title poem, with its ironic parenthetical promise that we can learn to soar after \'ten thousand easy lessons,\' sounds a winking dissent from all those how-to bestsellers that offer quick mastery of life’s essentials in a handful of effortless steps ... Kingsolver’s subversive humor, which occasionally sharpens her fiction and essays, informs her poetry, too. Her quirky sensibility often recalls Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate whose puckish eye for the comically absurd is an abiding reminder that poetry needn’t always be a somber exercise ... These poems – sometimes funny, often tender, and always deeply expressed – are a worthy answer to that calling.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... widens the aperture of our attention with a literary style so stunning that the reader may forget to blink ... In a story that extends across several continents, Ms. Giggs marshals lapidary language to give the crisis a compelling voice. Her prose, like the oceans in which her subjects roam, is immersive; her sentences submerge us in a sea of sensations. A reader fond of dog-earing choice turns of phrase in Fathoms might find, at evening’s end, a book pleated like an accordion with an abundance of keepsakes ... Writing this ambitious perhaps inevitably strikes the occasional false note...But these are quibbles about a book that can proudly stand on the shelf with The Whale, Philip Hoare’s 2008 masterwork on how cetaceans have shaped the world’s cultures and environment. Ms. Giggs, like Mr. Hoare, favors paragraphs lacquered with luminous detail, and the authors share a talent for copious research. But the perils faced by whales are an evolving story, so even readers of Mr. Hoare’s chronicle will find new insights in Fathoms ... more descriptive than prescriptive concerning the plight of whales and, by implication, the health of the Earth. But as with George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant and E.B. White’s Death of a Pig, Ms. Giggs, tending the final hours of a humpback on an Australian beach, reminds us that paying attention to the close of another creature’s life can be its own form of moral instruction.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... excels at the same kind of acid comedy that made Diary such a guilty treat. Those who can’t peruse the shelves of their local second-hand bookstore during this lockdown season will find Mr. Bythell’s diaries a sharp reminder of what they’re missing. But it’s probably better to shop at a bookstore than to own one, or so readers gather from Mr. Bythell’s wryly observed accounts of his tribulations in the trade ... Online giant Amazon figures into both of Mr. Bythell’s books as a killer of independent bookstores. But the chance to shop anonymously, without fear of judgment from the man behind the counter, can seem not such a bad thing after reading Mr. Bythell’s barbs. Even his most obliging patrons aren’t immune from his unflattering assessments.
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor... one thinks of Truman Capote, who elaborated on a tiny news story about the killing of a Kansas farm family, turning that grim tragedy into the seminal feat of reportage In Cold Blood...This is very much what Hammer is after in The Falcon Thief, which can sometimes read like the treatment for a James Bond movie ... Like Capote, Hammer has a keen eye for elegant detail ... The appeal of The Falcon Thief is that it involves us in our own form of compulsion – finding out what will happen next.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalAlthough we often read books about wild animals to discover how strange they are, the best nature stories also reveal how strange we are. Ms. Zickefoose is an odd bird herself ... While deeply conversant in ornithological research, Ms. Zickefoose writes of thinking as both a scientist and a poet. Her paintings illustrating the book show those dual sides of her sensibility. She renders Jemima and other birds in anatomically accurate detail, but the scenes from her 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in southeast Ohio resonate with a storybook lyricism. Her picture of Jemima confronting a rat snake during one of the bird’s early outings beyond the house would be at home in Aesop’s Fables ... Ms. Zickefoose’s prose can be painterly, too...Other sentences betray metaphorical overreach ... That overwrought birds-as-therapy formulation notwithstanding, Saving Jemima is most memorable when it acknowledges that nature doesn’t always have an answer for personal angst, instead inviting more questions.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalShortsighted developers and expedient politicians loom as easy targets for Mr. Pittman’s wrath, but he’s most engaging when he unpacks the moral quandaries that surface even when people of good will are trying to do the right thing ... Mr. Pittman is something of an authority on his home state’s reputation for strangeness ... makes clear that the struggles of the Florida panther aren’t a uniquely Floridian concern ... While ecological reportage isn’t known for levity, Mr. Pittman colors his story with a newspaperman’s typically irreverent humor ... a reminder of what we stand to lose if the Craig Pittmans of the world are no longer around.
Bernd Brunner, Trans. by Mary Catherine Lawler
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorIn a charming introduction, Mark Kurlansky, best known for his surprisingly absorbing books about salt and codfish, considers why winter gets such a bad rap ... full of tidbits – so much so that the book often feels, bracingly, like a stroll through a curiosity shop ... Brunner renders his research with a light, lyrical touch, evoking the tone of conversation rather than classroom instruction ... His prevailing argument – that winter is beautiful in spite of, or perhaps even because of, its stark clarity – often requires him to make his case with word pictures ... A general reader can’t know how to divide credit between author and translator for the poetic language of the text, although in his previous books under different translators, Brunner has also sounded like a deeply visual writer ... The long-ago origins of the pictures in Winterlust convey a not-so-subtle sense of elegy, leaving us to wonder if Brunner has come not only to praise winter, but to bury it. The open question, given the realities of climate change, involves whether the familiar patterns of winter will become a thing of the past.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorAlthough Hamer doesn’t directly make the comparison himself, his quietly drawn observations on the conflicts between his ideals and his life invite readers to reflect on similar dilemmas in their own conduct ... As with a number of other naturalist solitaries—Thoreau, Henry Beston, Annie Dillard—Hamer’s reflections can resonate with a runic sensibility. Like many a writer conditioned by solitude, he’s not in the habit of chatty elaboration in formulating an argument. His sentences sometimes sound like those of a desert mystic ... Hamer includes some of his poems between chapters. He’s a much better prose writer than a poet, and the poems add little to the mix. His prose, deeply musical and lush with imagery, already offers the reader a kind of poetry by another name.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalLike the celebrated nature writer Loren Eiseley, who could report on an ancient bison bone and his pet dog in the same breath, bringing the remote record of earlier lives into the warm immediacy of his household, Ms. Jamie connects the relics of distant ages with the daily routines in front of her ... references to climate change in Surfacing sound its softly elegiac tone ... Ms. Jamie appears more gregarious than Thoreau and most other nature writers. While the genre is deeply populated by solitaries, her essays brim with people ... but some of the book’s most memorable essays grow from [Jamie\'s] native soil in Scotland.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorBenfey is deeply aware of such challenges with Kipling, who can sound contemporary in some ways, but dated in others ... as Benfey makes clear, he’s not writing in defense of Kipling’s cultural attitudes, but to explore his place in history.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorGuinn has a lot of fun documenting the double takes from unsuspecting souls who saw Ford and his friends on the road ... One of the pleasures of The Vagabonds is remembering a time when travelers – even those as wealthy as Firestone – did get lost, without the benefit of navigation systems to set them straight ... Guinn doesn’t overlook the darker overtones of his story.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Renkl crafts graceful sentences that White would surely have enjoyed. A collection of her Times columns would be a welcome thing ... We’re left to wonder what drives Ms. Renkl’s fears ... One at times wishes that Ms. Renkl would more fully explore the implications of such disclosures, but Late Migrations treats them only glancingly. Her narrative is fragmented by design, mixing contemporary reflections with flashbacks to her childhood and bits of family folklore. Its patchwork sensibility seems meant to convey the crazy-quilt texture of personal memory, recollection rarely moving in clear sequence ... illustrated with nearly two-dozen collages by Billy Renkl, the author’s brother. His full-page images, reproduced in color, remind one of canning labels, their aesthetic both a celebration of and an elegy for a rural past. A liberating lyricism informs them, too ... [Renkl\'s] prose often sings ... The border between lightness and dark is where Ms. Renkl seems most inspired.
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor[Cutler is] the kind of man McCullough typically admires – a bibliophile and polymath much like Adams, Roosevelt, and Truman ... It’s hard not to think of such characters in mythic terms, and McCullough invariably evokes them with a ready superlative. McCullough’s willingness to be impressed, although it can be overdone, is one of his most endearing qualities as a writer. His refusal to embrace cynicism as a form of sophistication, one gathers, is part of his popular appeal.
Jeffrey S Cramer
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... an engaging account of the friendship between Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson ... Mr. Cramer hints that Thoreau’s iconoclasm, while frequently off-putting, reconnected the comfortably established Emerson with his rebel roots. That aspect of their relationship doesn’t quite come into focus here, since Mr. Cramer, not aspiring to a complete biography, says little about Emerson’s career before Thoreau.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"This is vintage Morris—the mundane mingling with the majestic in a casual embrace ... Although her landscape is smaller these days, sometimes confined to her own walls, Ms. Morris finds plenty of inspiration in what she sees ... In My Mind’s Eye isn’t Ms. Morris’s best work ... And yet there are sublime moments, as when she compares the challenges of age to the exile of the Roman poet Ovid.\
Stephen Drury Smith
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorFeatures foot soldiers along with high-profile figures such as Malcolm X, Andrew Young, and Roy Wilkins ... To read such stories is to recall that the civil rights movement wasn’t animated only by speeches and mass demonstrations, but by thousands of individual acts of courage.
Craig Morgan Teicher
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorIn carefully considering its technical concerns, Teicher acknowledges that poetry, though the result of concentrated effort, is also shaped by the ineffable. Reading We Begin in Gladness brings to mind E.B. White’s observation that poetry can’t be fully explained ... Teicher’s best insights, in fact, are ultimately about poetry’s connection to the sublime ... We Begin in Gladness can feel somewhat fragmentary. The essays that form each chapter originated in various literary journals, so the book is less a sustained argument than a series of appreciations.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorBob Spitz’s new biography, is that Spitz manages to evoke Reagan’s heyday in the 1980s with compelling clarity ... a balanced and copiously researched chronicle of its subject ... Spitz does a good job of capturing how groundbreaking that evolution was. Though he doesn’t draw a parallel with the current occupant of the White House, the significance of Reagan’s precedent seems clear, making it easier for reality TV star Donald Trump to make the transition to the campaign trail.
PositiveChristian Science MonitorIn this memoir as in her acclaimed biographies, Tomalin lets the telling of a story reveal its own truth, unmarked by the moralizing of the soapbox. And what a story it is ... Although A Life of My Own isn’t meant to be a work of literary criticism, the centrality of books in Tomalin’s life underscores the need for deeper dives into her intellectual views ... one senses in reading A Life of My Own that Tomalin never grows completely comfortable putting herself in the foreground ... But Tomalin’s reticence can be charming, too – a refreshing corrective to the contemporary fashion in confessional narrative.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorLeadership in Turbulent Times doesn’t strike a partisan tone. In fact, Goodwin doesn’t mention Trump at all, although the book’s reference to \'turbulent times\' will be understood as an oblique commentary on recent headlines ... Would Goodwin favor a modern-day president ignoring the judicial branch to get his way? It’s an issue she doesn’t fully address, which underscores an occasional problem with Leadership in Turbulent Times. It sometimes lacks the intellectual ambition that distinguished Goodwin’s earlier books, reading like previous research for her biographies that’s been repackaged to accommodate the present fad in leadership tutorials ... Even so, the book offers much to like.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalA milder tension between the romantic and the wryly observant informs Mayle’s posthumously published retrospective ... Mayle’s mellowest book, touched by the tenderness of a writer summing himself up ... But even in moments of majesty, Mayle’s puckish humor prevails.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorKooser’s poems...mildly subversive, unveiling literary vignettes where, at first glance, it does seem that not much of anything is going on. Yet not far beneath the surface of the narrative, something profound inevitably glows ... Kooser’s puckish self-effacement – his recognition that in a world of practical urgencies, poetry doesn’t always or even usually command center stage – is part of his abiding charm ... His poems speak without ornament of everyday life, not the preoccupations of the academy ... Their matter-of-fact Midwestern sensibility is also informed by a playful lyricism ... The reader hopes, in finishing this collection, that Kooser’s own journey is far from over.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalEmory University history professor Joseph Crespino concludes that Lee’s approach to her famous character was an evolving idea—one driven by her relationship with her father, Amasa Coleman Lee ... Mr. Crespino shows a gift for copious research and nuanced interpretation. He deftly parses the region’s racial attitudes into a spectrum of views that reflected varying degrees of tolerance.
RaveThe Christian Science Monitor\"In his sweeping and exhaustively researched biography, Mark Eisner plumbs the man behind the legend, a task for which he’s well-suited. Eisner has spent the past two decades working on projects related to Neruda, including a documentary about the poet’s life and work. With such an extensive grounding, Eisner doesn’t so much document his subject as inhabit it ... Eisner earnestly tries to give his subject the benefit of the doubt, and there are times when he indulges gushing elegy, as when he writes that Neruda is \'one great body, still, in all its fullness, stretching across the world, to all its famous and hidden corners.\' Such flattering assessments aside, one finishes The Poet’s Calling with a sense that it was better to read Pablo Neruda than to be around him.\
Tracy K Smith
MixedThe Christian Science Monitor\"Like a number of other poems in Wade in the Water, which is Smith’s most overtly political collection, \'Refuge\' has a raspy and hortatory air, suggesting a communiqué rather than a private reflection. \'Declarations,\' one of the book’s better efforts, proves more subtle ... Wade in the Water includes notes at the back to help explain what many of the poems are about. One feels a small sense of defeat at needing such a tutorial to grasp a poem, which perhaps ideally should be a self-contained thing.\
MixedThe Barnes & Noble Review\"Evocative imagery abounds in Varina, extending Frazier’s reputation for lushly descriptive prose...Frazier’s flair for metaphor sometimes lapses into the florid, registering one or two beats too many ... Although Varina necessarily deals with America’s national schism over slavery, the depths of depravity that system of oppression put into place rarely come into full focus in Frazier’s story...But the moral culpability of the characters in Varina rarely informs any specific, compelling insight. Instead, we get bland truisms ... ultimately lacks the weight it portends.\
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorA successful freelancer must be curious about a great many things, and this collection, which draws on material from the past three and a half decades, is a testament to the breadth of Moore’s intellect ... What unifies these pieces – what must galvanize any such collection – is the author’s voice, a prevailing sensibility. Moore’s manner of looking at the world, memorably described by Joyce Carol Oates in reviewing Moore’s fiction, equally applies to her nonfiction work: \'a unique combination of wit, caustic insight, sympathy for the pathos of her characters’ lives, and that peculiar sort of melancholy attributable to time too long spent in the northern Midwest where late-afternoon snow acquires a spectral blue tinge.\'
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorBanville’s professed ambivalence about his local turf is an obvious challenge for a memoir that’s ostensibly about place. If he doesn’t seem much interested in his native locale, why should we be? The shrug with which he addresses his subject is apparent at various points in the narrative ... Even so, Time Pieces can be can invitation to wonder, a quality invoked by the accompanying photographs by Paul Joyce, who captures his landscape scenes as living characters in a centuries-old drama.
RaveThe Christian Science MonitorAt more than 400 pages, it registers palpably on the lap, a pleasant anchor through an autumn afternoon ...a case of form following function, since Oliver is primarily a writer about the natural world ...Oliver’s poems have mostly been inspired by her long walks within the woods and shoreline of Provincetown, Mass. ... Like Wordsworth, Oliver deftly communicates physical movement in her poems, even though many of them ostensibly celebrate the serenity of standing still ...poems are often an exercise in ecstasy, charting those moments when the temporal is touched by the transcendental. We are not surprised to learn that she is a fan of Walt Whitman... a closer reading of Oliver’s poems reveals them as more than pastoral portraits rendered in cheerful pastels ... One finishes Devotions with the sense that Oliver’s poetry isn’t a denial of our troubled times, but an answer to them.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalThe Wine Lover’s Daughter is alert to the complications of cultural assimilation—in this case, her father’s tortured struggle to outrun his childhood as the son of poor immigrant Jews...The elder Fadiman’s alienation from his ancestry, a recurring theme of the book, is painful to read about ... The Wine Lover’s Daughter emerges as an elegy not only for Fadiman but also for a way of life.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorIsaacson calls his subject Leonardo throughout the book, creating a tone of intimacy with a man who, despite the biographer’s best efforts, retains an air of enigma ... By necessity, significant parts of Leonardo da Vinci must be speculative. In lieu of strict chronology, Isaacson uses paintings and other works of Leonardo as windows into his heart and mind ... Isaacson’s roots as a journalist serve him well. He writes simply and clearly, and even though his principal character hails from antiquity, the narrative hums like a headline from the morning paper, alert to topical parallels between then and now ... Isaacson sometimes lapses into the homiletic. Not quite confident that readers can draw their own conclusions about Leonardo’s life, he ends Leonardo da Vinci with a small tutorial listing the lessons we should learn.
Laura Dassow Walls
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorIn lieu of a definitive account of America’s most enigmatic man of letters, Walls offers 'a reading of Thoreau’s life as a writer – for, remarkably, he made of his life an extended form of composition, a kind of open, living book.' A noble aim, to be sure, though Thoreau’s writing life can’t neatly be separated from the many other lives he led. Some of Walls’s most vivid insights, in fact, concern Thoreau’s interest in science of all kinds, including mechanical engineering ... Walls portrays Thoreau as perhaps warmer than he really was, downplaying the considerable evidence of what a cold fish he could be. But for those of us who first endured Walden as assigned reading, the sheer pleasure that Walls takes in Thoreau’s writings is a timely reminder, on the bicentennial of his birth, that he’s an author not simply to be respected, but enjoyed.
MixedThe Christian Science MonitorThis is trademark Lamott – theological speculation, hippie slang and domestic comedy, C.S. Lewis by way of Janis Joplin by way of Erma Bombeck. It’s an idiosyncratic voice inflected by the bohemian culture of Lamott’s native San Francisco – a self-deprecating, confessional style that’s endeared Lamott to a loyal following of fans ... Lamott’s philosophical speculations unfold like a friendly conversation, but there are times when the breeziness of her tone seems to reflect a breeziness of thought ... What one misses here is the simple clarity of Help, Thanks, Wow, which had an obvious beginning, middle, and end. Hallelujah Anyway often reads more like a brainstorm for a book than a finished draft.
PositiveThe Christian Science MonitorHappily, the same qualities that inform McCullough’s histories and biographies also shape his speeches. He is, whether at his desk or a lectern, a consummate storyteller ... one sometimes wishes, in reading these pages, for a more declarative and specific call to mend what’s broken in the national psyche. The abiding appeal – and the abiding complication – of McCullough’s vision is that he’s a triumphalist at heart, more interested in celebrating the better angels of American history than in discerning what could be learned from diagnosing its darker impulses.
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor...history haunts Holmes at every turn, creating a book in which the past persistently peers over the present’s shoulder, collapsing the distance between then and now ... In the tradition of most successful historians and biographers, Holmes seems to achieve this intimacy with the past by immersing himself, trance-like, within a given terrain, with every brick or rock or tree a talisman tugging him deeper and deeper into the immense well of human experience. Holmes’s closeness with his surroundings sometimes invites the reader in, yet occasionally shuts him out.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Williams resists the tendency of so much nature writing towards easy epiphanies, adopting a tone that is, instead, pleasingly puckish. After a day of discerning the desert wonders outside Moab, she mentions with a wink that the science team she’s chronicling retreats not to a cave but a hotel, 'albeit with a fire pit on a roof deck' ... skeptical commentators compel Ms. Williams to weigh the evidence of her case carefully. Is a trip to the woods any better than listening to music or going to a museum? Does nature itself soothe people, or are they simply more relaxed because they’re out of the office? In other words, is 'the nature fix' actually about nature, or is it more broadly about our general hunger to escape from the monotony of our daily lives? Ms. Williams puzzles out the pros and cons, concluding, on balance, that there’s a good case for connecting with nature to extend both the quantity and quality of life. But she cautions against false choices.
PositiveThe Christian Science Monitor...conveys a sense of valediction for a writer in the final phase of her life and work ... Upstream is a testament to a lifetime of paying attention, and an invitation to readers to do the same.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhile deft at evoking the pleasures of 'a fine Burgundy, a Mont d’Or cheese so creamy it is best eaten with a spoon,' Ms. Sciolino is less persuasive at defining the dark hand of globalization and explaining to what degree—if any—the rue des Martyrs should be protected from competition.
PositiveThe Barnes & Noble ReviewChanging the Subject is not only a diagnosis of distraction but a prescription for it — an absorbing narrative to get lost in for a time, even as our inboxes and Twitter feeds beg for our attention.